Saturday, August 23, 2014

Taylor Swift, live stream reveal and Shake it off After Action Review

1989 was Transitional year in history and is a transitional album for Taylor Swift.

It is official Taylor is going full on pop, personally I am not at all surprised. Looking back at the history of modern music many other artists and music acts have done this. They get to a point in their careers where they make “THAT” album, you know the one” THAT” is different from their previous work and leaves even their most hard core fans thinking “WTF”?
While her new video Shake it off is getting mixed reactions, some like it, some hate it, and others are crying racism. This leads me to worry that 1989 might also be “THAT” album for Taylor Swift, the one that makes the swifites think “WTF”? Why? Because we have past examples of other successful acts attempting the same thing. Taylor said she wanted her next album to sound nothing like her past ones, wanted to change things up and offer something new.” THAT” album is always the result of an artist wanting to do just that, always the result a creative crisis and the desire to be taken “seriously” as musicians. More often than not, this desire for something new results in the artist falling face first into the dirt, here are some examples of transitions what were total disasters.

Example #1 Case of Musicians who wanted to be taken seriously

Kiss “Music from the Elder Vol 1.”

The 1980’s began with KISS facing a crisis, they were in a transition from being the Knights In Satan’s Service that terrified their parents,  to their fans becoming parents and bringing their own children to concerts. So the band softened up their music as a result, and that resulted in softer album sales. Fans and industry people felt KISS went from being a hard core sex, drugs and rock band to a commercialized circus act. That resentment had a ring of truth to it as action figures, comic books, and an atrocious TV movie did not help build a reputation as serious musicians.

Speaking of MERCH, Big Machine Records, if in some slim chance you are reading this, any chance we can get Taylor Swift legos?Thought I'd Ask.

Paul Stanley wanted to go back to a harder sound, but Bob Ezrin decided to take a drastic departure and to make an epic symphonic album that was to be an epic heroes tale that would span several albums.  Final result was an EPIC disaster, the management team was confused by what they heard and so were the fans as Elder became worst selling album KISS ever made.  Sales were so poor that the band did not undertake a promotional tour instead did several TV performances.

Example #2  I want to change everything, even who I am

Garth Brooks becomes Chris Gaines

In 1999 Garth Brooks wanted to go Alternative, Pop, or rock, eat pop rocks or whatever. His strategy was to take on a new persona of Australian rock sensation Chris Gaines. Never hear of him?  Well he never existed, Chris Gaines was a fictional character who was supposed to be in a movie titled The Lamb by Paramount Pictures. Problem arose when He took on this persona and made music and a video before the film project was set in stone, the album was to be a “pre-soundtrack” to a film that was not even in pre-production yet. Just like The Elder it was a soundtrack for a story that did not exist, unlike Elder a film was in planning. The film deal went south and his loyal fans all thought He lost his mind.  Daily Show summed it up best “This shows that even Garth Brooks has gotten sick of Garth Brooks.”

Example #3 Double Threat, another soundtrack for things that do not exist and a switch to Pop

U2: Passengers Original Soundtracks 1 and POP

Bono not learning the lesson from KISS and Garth, decided to do the entire soundtrack to non-existent movies. Like all successful acts Bono and Brian Eno got bored and decided to form a new group called the Passengers and made Original Soundtracks 1, it was another concept album, the concept of soundtracks for a movie that does not exist.  (Except for Miss Sarajevo,  Ghost in the Shell and Beyond the Clouds) So far seems to be a popular choice for artists who want to experiment, (let’s hope Ms Swift does not get a brain fart about doing an album of songs for fairy tales that do not exist., Vol 1)  Just like Elder it was going to be first of many, and just like Elder it ended up being the only one. The project was such a flop that Drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. voiced his disapproval "There's a thin line between interesting music and self-indulgence. We crossed it on the Passengers record."
Except for the memorable Miss Sarajevo with legendary Luciano Pavarotti, the rest of album being was passed over by U2 fans and was the least selling in their discography second only to the next outing which this was a warm up for.
POP goes the record sales

Bono and the band were not done screwing up, after Passengers they wanted to go for a new musical style, a U2 album that you can dance to.  After Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr got a Grammy nomination for their electronica theme for the Mission: Impossible movie and they all thought, DANCE was the way to go. Like all disaster albums, there was trouble behind the scenes, Mullen was absent for most of the production do to recovering from back surgery, and producer Nelle Cooper left in May 1996 to work on the Romeo + Juliet film score.
Thus POP was born, and the tour was announced at the Lingerie department of the NYC Kmart. (I kid you not) All those problems came to the surface during the 1997 ABC one hour prime time special U2: A year in pop, much of the rehearsal time was taken up to make final tweaks on the album and it showed in the special as it was the lowest rated non-political documentary in the history of ABC.

The album suffered the same fate, while it was initially a commercial success, the reviews were mixed and it now has the lowest lifetime sales of all U2 Albums.  Even U2 themselves distanced themselves from POP as their next album All That you Can’t Leave Behind had a more traditional stripped down approach and they played less and less of songs from POP in future tours. 

Lessons Learned

Of all these music disasters POP holds the best parallel to 1989. This is an album that is a stark departure the Taylor’s previous work, and if it fails, just like U2 expect to see a more stripped down  return to her more traditional music, such as an acoustic album and she will then may Shake off this experience by deleting 1989 from her future concert playlists.
While Taylor’s change does echo some of these historical disasters, Taylor might be able to pull this off. Why? Unlike these examples, Ms. Swift or her management team is smart and could be aware of these fumbles. She just did not JUMP into pop. She tested the waters first, RED has several pop songs, State of Grace, 22 and We are never getting back together. Her most POP song before Shake it off  was Sweeter than Fiction for the movie “One Chance”.  The song was a throwback to 80’s pop songs and a foreshadowing to Shake it off and the idea behind 1989. A country artist recording a pop song for movie was a smart move, a great way to try something new and minimize the risk. If the song failed, Taylor could always distance herself from the song and style saying to it was made to fit a movie and is not a part of her larger work. While this is a new musical change for Taylor her fans were not left in shock as many were already suspecting it , unlike KISS, GARTH and U2, Taylor groomed her fans for this change, that is the major difference here. Her change is not an abrupt one, it is pop but not under some self-indulgent concept that is going to fly over her fans.

Final Verdict

What got my attention of the live stream was her use of Polaroid photos and her mentioning of loving tangible photographs. We now live in an age of digital everything, music is now downloaded directly into digital players, and purchased or “obtained” online. This is also true for all media, DVD is giving way to live streaming and torrents, and Broadcast TV is giving way to downloading and binge watching. Even reading has changed as paper books are giving way to kindle. Even  video games are becoming direct digital downloads. Our entertainment is no longer physical, music is on ipads and people live virtual lives in online games and it seems as more and more of the real world is slipping away.

It is possible Taylor senses this and wants to hold on to what is real in this world. For her album name she chose 1989, because it is her birth year, but there is something more profound going on with the choice of 1989 that even she is not aware of.  Taylor said that “It was, apparently, a time of limitless potential. … The idea of endless possibility was kind of a theme in the last year of my life." If you look deeper there was a reason for this, Taylor said the album is reflection of the last transitional year in her life, and 1989 was a transitional year in world history. 

 A month before Taylor was born a major event shook the world. The Berlin Wall, a symbol of the cold war came down, the climax of events that punched holes in the Iron Curtain earlier that year. 1989 was also interesting in another aspect; she was born at a transition in our society one where the digital age we now live in was being born.  Tim Berners-Lee, a British computer scientist on March 12, 1989, he wrote a proposal for what would eventually become the World Wide Web. Personal computers were starting to appear in people’s homes; in music cassette tapes were giving way to compact discs. Two years later High Performance Computing and Communication Act of 1991 was passed thus building the foundation for the World Wide Web.

1989 was just not the year Taylor was born but it was the last year of our world before everything started to become totally digitized. 1989 was a transitional year, the end of one decade and the start of another. But it was not an abrupt change as the old world faded and blended into the digital world from 1989 to 1994 with the founding of Yahoo. So far Taylor’s transition from country to pop is not the abrupt jump like many failed attempts before, but a slow blending from one style to another in a seamless transition. Will this be a successful change?  We will have to wait until the album comes out in October.

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